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This Business of Code
February 1941 QST Article

February 1941 QST

February 1941 QST  Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Proficiency in Morse code is no longer required as part of obtaining an Amateur Radio license. A proposal to drop the 5 wpm requirement was first floated by the FCC in 2005. It was actually at the request of the ARRL; to wit, "In 2004, the League called on the FCC to create a new entry-level license, reduce the number of actual license classes to three and drop the Morse code testing requirement for all classes except for Amateur Extra."

ARLB018 FCC Proposes Dropping Morse Code Requirement Entirely

Now, there is no code requirement for any license class, not even the Amateur Extra.

A lot of Hams are not happy about it, but times have changed and the need for code proficiency just is not needed anymore because of the plethora of communications formats available. No small part of the ARRL's motivation for requesting that code proficiency be dropped for the entry level licenses was that the ARRL believed that many people who otherwise might be getting licenses were putting off doing so specifically because of the Morse code requirement.

This Business of Code

Suggestions for Improving Your Code Proficiency

By John Huntoon (W1LVQ)

According to the last survey made by the League's Communications Department, 60 percent of amateur activity consists of c.w. telegraph operation. At the risk of boring the other 40 percent of you - though that chance is slim if one judges by the interest manifested by all of amateur radio in the Code Proficiency Program - I would like to talk about the business of sending and receiving code.

Too little attention is paid by the average amateur to acquiring skill in this basic form of radio communication. We amateurs spend money on equipment, time in building it, care in designing antenna systems - all excellent policies, to be sure - but why stop there? Too few of us realize that in communication, the basic function for which we have worked to gain our licenses, we are known to the world by the way we handle our signals . . . what listeners hear as well as what they see on the S-meter. Paderewski did not become a great pianist by altering his piano's sounding board to see if he could get more volume!

RF Cafe - This Business of Code, Cartoon 1, February 1941 QSTIt is true that technical considerations enter into the production of a good note and clean keying, but I prefer to think that the fist itself, a direct product of the operator himself, is the main criterion by which the individual is judged. We can spend $10 or $10,000 on station equipment, but we can't buy a good fist. Good operating goes along with a good fist. It is important, then, that we amateurs give attention to how we send as well as to what equipment we use to send it. So, let's delve into it a bit.

It is well to point out here one fundamental thing which is true of every art and particularly so of code operating: real progress requires constant and applied practice. There are no short-cuts; we have to be willing to do it the hard way.

First, let's "take the code apart." It is, really, another language. It is a conversion of intelligence, by letters of the alphabet, into signals which may be transmitted by wire or radio or visually, and then intercepted and deciphered back into intelligence. Specifically, it is a substitution of various combinations of signals and interim spaces for the 26 letters of the alphabet, ten numerals, various punctuation marks and special symbols.

When this system was devised, two of the elements comprising the code equivalents of letters were called the dot and the dash (the third element is the oft-forgotten space). This dot-and-dash conception may have been satisfactory back in wire telegraph days, but it causes a great handicap to those who wish to acquire skill in radio code work. As far as radio communication is concerned, the code should be thought of in terms of sound - dits and dahs, rather than as they are pictured on paper as dots and dashes. One wishing to improve his ability to handle code, be he just beginning or well along in his study, will have made much progress the day he begins to think of code solely in terms of sound. The principle is by no means new, but it cannot be stressed too strongly.

Let me digress from code a moment to show why. Repeat slowly to yourself the letter "i." It is not a single pure sound, but rather is enun-ciated by saying rapidly in succession the sounds "ah" (as in father) and "ee." You use the sound "i" so often you probably never noticed that; and what is more important, you learned it right, as one sound instead of a combination of others. Why then do we learn code letters as combina-tions of sounds instead of as sound units in them-selves? If you have been taught to say "i" by the combination of "ah" and "ee," you probably would have had one devil of a time getting the "i" sound down pat. Another example in phonetics is the letter "u," which is formed by saying "ee" and "oo" in rapid succession. When you hear it, you don't think of the letters "ee" and "oo," do you? That's because you learned it as a unit. And that is why code should be learned in units of letters rather even than dits and dahs.

When we learn the code in that way, we make the path of progress much easier; we shortly learn whole words by their code sounds rather than by their individual letters. A 25-word-per-minute man when listening to 35- or 40-w.p.m. transmission can easily pick out the short words such as "and," "the," "stop" and others. Why? Because he has heard them 80 often that they have become indelibly fixed in his mind as word-sounds. At that speed he doesn't hear dits and dahs, or even letter units; it is as if someone had actually spoken the word to him. 

Don't get the idea that an author with a W1L . . . call is being presumptuous when he writes a story on code, because you'd be very wrong in this case. WILVQ is just another disguise for ex- W9KJY, a fellow who really knows his dits. Besides being one of the fastest amateur opera-tors in the country, John Huntoon has given the subject considerable thought, and we think you'll find his ideas both interesting and helpful.
The word "the" in Spanish is "el"; in French, "le," In code, it is the sound "dah didididit dit." It's merely another means of expression, another language - but not a combination of "dots and dashes."

Perhaps you are one of those who are "stuck" at some speed and can't seem to increase from that point. If so, the trouble doubtless is that you, whether you realize it or not, must take each code character and put it through a mental routine to get the letter for which it stands. You hear the sound "didah," must mentally convert it into "dot-dash" (ugh!) and from there, into the letter "a." You have to use this process because that is the way you learned it and you have not given conscious effort to overcome that fault. Your mind should work like a telegraph printer: producing the letter simultaneously with recep-tion of the code signal - just as if it were spoken.

Why do students of music attend concerts, keep a close watch on the schedule of radio broadcast programs for good music, and buy recordings of the great artists? Because, of course, they want to get the feel of the music. They know the maestro probably can render the piece more perfectly than any other person. They want to know how the pieces they are studying sound when played correctly. And there is our cue.

We, too, must get the feel of the code, and know how it sounds when sent correctly. We have to get fixed in our minds, indelibly, the correct formation of each and every letter and mark in dit-dah sound language and, later, of as many complete words as possible. And, of course, there's one excellent way to do it: listening to commercial tape sending.

RF Cafe - This Business of Code, Cartoon 2, February 1941 QSTThis suggested procedure is for already-licensed amateurs, persons who know the code at a speed of 15 words per minute or more. By reference to press and weather schedules in old Call Books, the list of press transmissions recommended in QST's "Operating News" section for code practice, or by actually searching them out on the air, find a station or two with automatic keying sending just a bit below your maximum speed - i.e., so you can just read it (not neces-sarily copy it down) solid. Then stick to him by the hour; hang onto every letter, word and phrase. Listen as you would at a musical con-cert; notice the formation of each letter and the spaces left between letters and words. Probably you will notice his businesslike "dahdidahdit" for "c," while you blush in remembering your own "dawwwdidawwdit." Notice the proportion in length of dits to dahs; what seem like exag-gerated spaces between words (because you've probably been running yours together), and a score of other details where his sending is different than yours would show up in the same text. Take heed - and profit. Half an hour a night of just listening will work wonders with your code ability after a couple of weeks.

Even better, however, would be your locating a commercial tape station sending double. Man, here is where you can really get some unequalled practice! Rig up an audio oscillator for your bug or key, separate from the receiver, and as each word comes through initially, fix it in your mind. Then, as the tape repeats it, send the same word simultaneously with the tape, as closely to perfect synchronism as possible. Perhaps you will find yourself leaving too much or too little space between characters, or making certain dahs too long - these are the most common errors. Remember that all inaccuracies are yours, and profit accordingly. By such constant practice you will learn the proper rhythm and precision of perfect code. It's bound to work itself, subconsciously, into your sending.

A code instruction machine, particularly one where long spaces are left between each letter on the tape so the student may repeat it back, can be used if suitable commercial transmissions are not found. If you can't find a commercial station sending double, one sending straight press can substitute in a minor way. When a long word comes along, as soon as you get the first few letters you can often guess the remainder, and then send with key and oscillator the rest of the letters in the word in synchronism (we hope!) with the tape. Ideal practice can be obtained by using the WIA W official broadcasts. After you have copied the text once, you can use it to send on an oscillator simultaneously with WIA W on subsequent transmissions during the week when it is repeated. If you don't have and can't get an audio oscillator, whistling the characters aloud will accomplish nearly the same purpose.

When sending with key or bug, whether with an audio oscillator for practice or when actually on the air, let your mind be thinking of the sound of each character as it is sent. This can be accomplished by softly whistling each character in synchronism with the key.

Practice of this sort will not only let you send better code, but shortly will increase your receiving and sending speeds. But don't rush it - let it come naturally. Keep your sending speed well below your receiving ability; never under any circumstances send as fast as you can receive. Those who do so have a conception of the code that is mechanical rather than aural.

Direct copy on the typewriter at high speeds should be the eventual objective of every licensed amateur. Complete success will not come unless the amateur is an accomplished touch typist; two-fingered typing will not allow you to receive at speed much greater than you can put down with pencil. For any speed in code reception, you have to be able to type automatically and with-out conscious effort. A touch-typing course for you lads still in school, an evening school class for those past that stage, or perhaps a home-study course will do the trick for non-typists.

Practice copying at a steady speed. Don't listen and then type ferociously for a second _ . _ and listen . . . and type hurriedly again. Your typing must be dissociated, consciously, from code reception.

Often we hear the question, "How can I learn to copy behind?" Too many such amateurs at-tempt to copy behind before their code ability reaches the necessary stage. I do not mean in rate of speed, but rather in manner of copying. That is, to successfully copy behind, an operator must have reached the point where he is reading word-sounds, and not letters. A person cannot carry a series of letters in his mind any more than he can numbers (that's why we fellows carry those little red phone number books), but if he associates them as complete words it is not difficult. Furthermore, when an operator copies individual letters, he must set the text down in letter units, and that forces him to write (pencil or mill) with conscious effort - which completely blocks any attempt to copy behind.

Then what is the way to copy behind? Merely the same listening practice suggested above. You've got to make this language of code a word-language to your mind. You will know when you have reached this stage because sud-denly you will automatically begin to copy be-hind, so don't force the issue.

It all gets back to the same thing - practice and habit. As far as the code goes, even today when driving alone in a car or walking alone, I subconsciously begin to whistle code. I sometimes drive the household to near insanity by attempt-ing to sing arias when shaving before the bathroom mirror; but just as often I pretend to be a big bad commercial sending V-wheels, or W1AW sending its nightly QST broadcast. Try it. You'll find yourself getting quite chummy with code.



Posted November 11, 2020
(updated from original post on 2/24/2011)

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